Sid Ceasar and Phones in Comedy

My local PBS showed clips from old shows. The telephone figured in some of them.

In one clip, the group got into an argument over the names of the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. One man makes a few phone calls to ask around. He dialed 5 or 6 digits, but spun the dial very quickly, not letting it properly return. The man then made another call, this time dialing only three digits. "Long Distance? Get me Walt Disney in Hollywood!". The man repeatedly emphasizes he's spending $3 on long distance to find out the info ($3 was maybe $30-$40 today). He gets Walt Disney on the phone (who didn't know the answer), and mentioned again he was calling long distance for $3.

The clip was also interesting for the social world it shown. The gang was headed out for the evening when they got into this argument. They were hollering at each other, and it reminded me of adults of that day, which seemed to be hollering at lot more than they do today (maybe it was only my world). Also, they were all dressed up very nicely -- men in suits, women in nice dresses. Today people go out to dinner or a movie in beach clothes; we forget in those days people put on a necktie or dress quite often when they left the house.

Another clip was a monologue about a night on the town. It starts off with him calling his girlfriend for a date, and he made exagerated sounds of dialing, ringing, etc.

Those old shows were done live. When something fouled up -- which happened often (forgotten lines, prop would fall down -- the actors had to be quick and improvise to keep the sketch moving. By today's standards the humor could be a little bland and the jokes very old. But the shows have a kind of vitality often not seen today. The comedy groups were a tight-knit team. They also could be funny without resorting to sex or even politics.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: One of my favorite telephone gags is when the person _merely pretends_ to call someone, but actually has his finger holding the hook down while he makes a big production of dialing then speaking to whomever (only supposedly), and then mid-way through the supposed conversation with the supposed person, the phone _actually rings_ with a real call coming in, and of course the pretender is quite embarassed at being caught in this obvious lie. I first saw this routine in an old Jack Benny show from the 1930's, then I saw it again in an "I Love Lucy" show. The third time I saw it was when John Ritter (in his role as Jack Tripper, on "Three's Company") got caught in that lie on one of the "Three's Company" shows. Viewers will recall that poor Jack was always getting in some hassle or another on that show, and his two female roomates would always have to rescue him.

The odd part was that on the show where Jack got caught 'with his finger on the hook while making a call' (because the phone rang), when it happened, the audience roared with laughter, poor Jack looked very humiliated as always, but on the 'outakes' (not used in the show but available on the video of 'outakes' several years later) who should walk on the set at that moment but Lucille Ball -- not normally on the show except two or three times as a special guest) and she sternly said "John, you stole one of my better laughs!" and Ritter replied, "but my writers got it from the same guy you did, Jack Benny!". Miss Ball gave him a dirty look and stalked off the stage. The audience loved it; because the applause for Lucille Ball and the laughter on account of the joke went on for so long the producers had to cut it out of the tape entirely. You are correct, Lisa, they could tell jokes and have funny situations in a clean way on television in years gone past. PAT]

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